TThe boy on the left is Frank Palombo, the former chief of police for New Bern in North Carolina, a city I’ve been photographing for the past 15 years. In 2006, an organization called Swiss Roots invited me to document New Bern as part of their mission to promote a positive image of Switzerland, my country, in the United States.
They approached me in part because my ancestor is the settler Christopher von Graffenried, who founded New Bern in 1710 after a conflict with a Native American tribe known as the Tuscarora. I didn’t know anything about him and, initially, neither the project nor my family history interested me. But a month later, I changed my mind: it was an opportunity to find out if the prejudices of the Swiss about George Bush’s America were true.
One of the first things I did was ask the New Bern police if he could ride me in one of their vehicles for a few days. Palombo invited me to join him in visiting wounded soldiers returning from Iraq at a military hospital. Dogfish He had started his career in the air force and then joined the Florida police before settling in New Bern, where he ended up as chief in 1997. We got in the car and I sat in the front seat next to the driver. To my surprise, we were joined by a police communications officer – the man putting on his tie. I realized that they wanted to have some control over the situation.
Despite spending the afternoon photographing disabled veterans, this was the only photograph from that day that I included in the final photobook, Our Town. I often find my most interesting shots by chance, along the way, so the final destination is not so important anymore. In the words of my friend and great influence, photographer Robert Frank: “You take the picture and run.” A photograph is not interesting when the subjects have time to compose themselves.
I began to see New Bern as a microcosm of the entire country. In America, a place where everyone knows to appear in the best possible light, everyone is posing or ready to have their picture taken. During my first visit, the community welcomed me with enthusiasm: they liked the fact that I was a descendant of the founder of the town. But the more time I spent there, came back every year, stayed up to a month, observing and photographing, the more the atmosphere changed. The situation in the police car reflected my overall experience. Over the years, the inhabitants became more and more cautious with my presence when they saw that my photographs did not present a promotional and tourist vision of the city, but the daily reality as I saw it.
New Bern seemed like a divided place to me. Its history of racial conflict and segregation, first between European settlers and Native Americans, then between white citizens and enslaved African Americans, did not seem like a distant past. The city is home to 30,000 people, 55% white citizens and 33% black, yet I rarely saw these mixed communities. This stark division was hardly recognized by the people I spoke to.
I named my project Our Town, in reference to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play of the same name. The idea of this work is that the living do not see reality. Only once they die, in the final act, can they fully understand the environment they have left behind. In the same sense, my photography tries to capture a reality to which people are blind, not simply to show them what they see or want to see. Like the rest of the world, New Berns woke up after George Floyd’s death in May 2020 and began to question their separation.
I had realized my own shortcomings a few years earlier. One Sunday morning, I walked into a local African-American church. I was the only white person and the pastor invited me to introduce myself to the congregation and explain my work. From that moment on I was able to change the course of the project, but also to fight against my own racial blindness. Before that, it only had half the history of New Bern.
What was planned to be a two-year project funded by Swiss Roots was transformed into a separate 15-year project. I became a photographer out of curiosity, but also to learn about myself. While Our Town was a reflection of a community I did not belong to, it also showed me as a mirror. It allowed me to confront my own anxieties and assumptions. In that way, photography is my own personal therapy.
Michael von Graffenried’s CV
Born: Bern, Switzerland, 1957
Influences: “My friend Robert Frank.”
Decisive point: “Becoming the third Swiss after René Burri and Robert Frank to receive the Dr. Erich Salomon award from the German Photography Society.”
Low point: “My impatience.”
Better advice: “Be curious and open.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism